The divisions in American that resulted in the Civil War were hardly drawn at the Mason-Dixon line. While divisive opinions about slavery abounded throughout the United States, and to an extent the Confederacy, the issue of secession caused more disagreement throughout the South than slavery did. For these “Unionists,” as they became known, whether or not slavery was constitutionally mandated was beside the point – once a part of the United States, there was no turning back, no secession.
Although support for a nascent Confederacy was strong in many of the Southern states during the Secession Crisis of 1860-1861, this support was hardly unanimous. A significant number of Southerners felt that secession was either illegal or unnecessary, of this number, there were those who felt that secession would never truly come to fruition. Others still, those who did not own slaves or perhaps did not support the institution of slavery, were opposed to secession from the Union on the grounds that the inevitable outcome would be a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
As the threats of secession became reality in many Southern states, those who did not support the Confederacy reacted with hostility – and ingenuity. In areas where these Unionists were plenty, attempts to rejoin the Union often flourished.
While the most famous example of this dissention is the state of West Virginia, which was formed at the outset of the war by disenfranchised citizens of the western part of Virginia who wanted no part of secession, there were other instances throughout the South of towns and even regions attempting to secede from their seceded home state.
One such example was the proposed state of Nickajack. A geographic area composed of parts of Southeast Tennessee and North Alabama, Nickajack was home to many Southern Unionists who resisted the yoke of the Confederacy and attempted to form their own state – to be called Nickajack – from parts of both states.
The residents of these parts of Alabama and Tennessee had little in common with the wealthier parts of the state. Plantations and slaves were scarce in the Nickajack region, as was agriculture such as was found in the central and southern parts of Alabama and the central and western parts of Tennessee. Not surprisingly, there was little support for secession or the Confederacy in the Nickajack region.
In both Alabama and Tennessee there were those who fought actively to prevent secession. In Alabama, the convention to debate secession was thrown in the favor of the central and southern regions, which had larger populations due to the number of slaves in area, and thus had more delegates. Northern Alabama delegates fought to have the decision of whether or not to secede put to popular vote, knowing that it was possible that a popular vote would defeat secession – while the population of central and southern Alabama was larger, the mostly-white northern region accounted for more votes. However, a popular vote never came to pass, and Alabama ultimately seceded.
In Tennessee, the agonizing decision of whether or not to secede did come to a popular vote, and passed by a slim margin. In East Tennessee, where secession and slavery alike were not widely supported, this was a bitter blow. On two occasions, representatives form 26 pro-Union counties in East Tennessee met to discuss seceding from the state, going as far as to petition the state legislature. What they got instead of independence was Confederate occupation.
Back in Alabama, one county in the Nickajack region, Winston County, refused to join the Confederacy. County representative to the Alabama secession convention, schoolteacher Christopher Sheats, refused to sign Alabama’s order of secession, and was arrested, but Winston County’s steadfast refusal to accept the Confederacy persisted, resulting in what was referred to as “the Free State of Winston.”
While the state of Nickajack never became a reality, the citizens who lived in these and other areas where support for the Confederacy was scarce found themselves fighting a war that they never wanted, often in their own towns and homes. One can only wonder how the history of the war – and of the United States – would have been different if the state of Nickajack had been admitted to the Union.